Beyond the environmental, construction and design methods, as winner of the Heritage category at the 2017 Sustainability Awards, the Skipping Girl Vinegar factory conversion has fundamentally changed the construction process.

What drew you to the Skipping Girl Vinegar factory site in the first place?

We had been looking for an architectural challenge for about two years. We looked at several factories, warehouses, hotels and milk bars to adapt. Adaptive re-use is a key part of a sustainable city. 

The old Skipping Girl vats which themselves had been adapted from the original 1890 bakery were a unique find.  We did not want an easy task, there is too much fast–food architecture, where developers just want sugar for their lunch and do not care about the history or future of the city.

This building was a brick shell with 24 concrete vats four meters below ground level. There were just three walls remaining, but these were still in good condition and presented us with solid 15-metre high voids.  

The roof was paper thin with rust and unsafe to walk on and there was water everywhere in the basement.  We transformed the building into a four-storey home with an internal walled garden and an architectural practice in the basement level.

Sustainability was a key aspect with no waste leaving the site and no skips used. All timber and brickwork from the site was reuse in the rebuild. The old vats were reused as workstations, a fishpond, garden beds, a toilet and a laundry space

What was the hardest part of the project, and what part made this project stand out?

The hardest thing to deal with was the sheer enormity of the challenge. Because access was difficult everything had to be done by hand. So, it was a long two-year process. The thing about old buildings is that they are never straight and so, the walls beams, and floors were all off square and had to be accounted for.

Getting natural light into the centre of the factory was also a challenge. One of the best parts of the home is the view from the top bedroom and balcony. Here from the highest point of inner Melbourne on Rucker’s Hill you can see out as far as Mount Macedon and the airport.  The internal views are just as thrilling. 

The view down over the internal garden provides a spectacular perspective not often afforded to traditional garden owners. The retention of the old Oregon timber trusses, some of which are made from single piece of timber 18 metres long is a strong design element that is constantly referenced throughout the home. This is a constant reminder of the history of the building.

How do you manage to not waste any materials on site?

We set a rule for ourselves that nothing on the site when we bought it could leave the site without being re-used, re-purposed or recycled. The same applied to materials brought on site. This meant thinking laterally about waste products to find a use for them.  We used the old vats to sort and store construction materials. 

At the end of the job, collected steel was taken to the recyclers, the same for concrete. Timber without glues or treatment was used and any offcuts piled in a store on the street that neighbours could take as firewood.  A key component was designing to sheet sizes and minimising waste. This can be scaled up, with a little bit of effort and organisation from builders and project managers.

This project was carefully constructed in a sustainable manner. There was considerable re-use of existing materials, for example:

  1. The 10m long timber beams that are now in the kitchen courtyard all came from the basement.
  2. The broken bricks from the stable became drainage for garden beds.
  3. The good bricks from the stable and the hole for the garage door were made into the BBQ and balustrade for the kitchen and the floor paving in the laundry.
  4. The cut-out concrete from the vats was used in the fishpond and as seating in the garden.
  5. The steel scaffolding pipes were used as handrails to the stairs and as the support frame for the desks.
  6. The old steel stair was relocated with new treads and is now the bottom stair down to the basement.
  7. The old steel window was repaired double glazed and are featured in the bedrooms and lounge.
  8. Hardwood timber wall framing reused as door jambs, screening and gate to courtyard.
  9. Planks from scaffolding and stairs were reused as shelving.
  10. Steel grates from old windows are now in the garage as tool organisers on the wall.
  11. Weights from double hung windows used to stabilise chains on the walls for creepers.
  12. Vinegar barrels reused as planters.
  13. Steel bands from vinegar barrels reused in drains for water tanks.
  14. Steel stair reused as wine rack.
  15. Vats reused as workstations, planters, toilets, water tanks.
  16. Cut off rafter ends as a sculpture.

One figure that needs to be shouted out is that 42 percent of landfill is construction waste. A builder does not need to do everything we did.  Just a few steps in recycling or re-using materials will make a difference. Each small step matters. By ordering to material sizes and modules, time and money is saved. Savings can also be made in reducing rubbish removal costs.

When it comes to reusing a heritage-listed structure, what are the main pitfalls, and how do you overcome them?

Heritage listed structures are not necessarily a problem. They can serve as points for inspiration.  

The key feature that strikes you as you enter is the walled internal garden. This stretches from the vats turned planter boxes up through the full four-storey 15-metre high void. The cladding material is unconventional being a combination of pre-rusted Corten steel (which was folded into a customised profile) and a white reflective sandwich panel usually reserved for coolroom walls. 

The kitchen bench is a white polished concrete with the sink and drainers cast into a singular form.  The steel windows were liberated from a factory three doors down the laneway, and lovingly bent back into shape, sanded and painted and double glazed with high performance Low-e Glass. 

The stairs, which I designed and assembled, have a dragon-like spine and stainless-steel cable balustrade running the full height of the four storeys from top of vat to base of truss.

The key sustainable principles included:

  • Natural ventilating louvers to purge home at night
  • Double glazed Low-e glass to restrict heat loss in winter
  • Concrete slab to lock in thermal mass heat
  • Insulation to walls and roofs throughout
  • Reuse of building materials
  • Use of locally produced and sourced building materials.
  • Rainwater collection for use in flushing toilets, garden and laundry washing needs
  • Natural stack effect air conditioning from basement garden and pond
  • LED lighting and Hydronic heating
  • Use of reflective light

Do you believe from both a sustainability and aesthetic perspective, that the rebuilding of heritage structures should be encouraged and supported by governments?

Governments should definitely support the adaptive re-use of heritage structures. It is these sorts of buildings that hold the history of the city. They imbue the city with life and a sense of connection.

It has been said that "Architecture is a social act and material theatre of human activity". Is this true when redesigning and rebuilding something like the Skipping Girl Vinegar factory?

There is a deep sense of responsibility when you are dealing with a heritage building. You are not only designing for the client, but more than any other building type you are also designing for the greater community. The buildings are all players on the urban stage.